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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon

A Seat at the Table

Do you remember this song? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came… Isn’t this true for all of us? Isn’t our deepest longing to belong to something bigger than ourselves but to be deeply known in this belonging?

Papa and Memo at the family table

If you ask my children what are the two things I care most about in our family schedule, they will surely tell you: family mass and family dinner. They are sacred to me. They both include ritual, traditions, community, nourishment, sharing, prayer and often music.

I grew up loving the rituals of my Catholic faith and first learned the value of family dinner at home with my parents and brother. My mother is the oldest of 13 children and the larger family meals at my grandparent’s home in Pennsylvania also provided a rich and unique experience around the table. Meals might not have elaborate food, but they were always an occasion. My grandmother insisted on using real dishes, nice silverware, and cloth napkins, even with many children, grandchildren, and often other guests joining the meal. There would be a tablecloth or cloth placemats and always candles.

I spent many years as the youngest in the bunch and often had the privilege of making creative place cards to assign seats for the meal. My grandfather, Papa, always sat at the head of the long farm table in the niche made by the curved Victorian windows; my grandmother, Memo, sat to his right. The rest of us filled in along the chairs and benches that lined each side of the table. Some people might also spill into the wide doorway to sit at a card table or the round table in the front room. You were expected to come to the table with shoes on your feet and never in a bathing suit. You didn’t eat until Papa led grace before meals and even the smallest child stayed until he or she could find a break in the conversation and speak loudly enough to be heard: “Papa, may I please be excused?”

My grandfather’s firm and humble presence provided the structure for these gatherings, but my grandmother was the queen of hospitality. She has a natural grace, a gift for conversation, and a talent for making everyone feel welcome at her table. These gifts overflowed to their summer home on Lake Wallenpaupack where for the last 38 summers, my abundant family has gathered for a week-long reunion. Grandchildren grew and great-grandchildren arrived; spouses, partners, and friends-that-are-family became permanent fixtures. Our numbers top 50 every year. Traditions developed – the Island swim, a corn-hole tournament, the mushroom hunt, a book-exchange. Our family motto is “Work Hard, Play Hard” and so surely there is always some kind of laborious and cumbersome chore we cheerfully join together to complete, like laying hundreds of feet of painted plywood to create a path for the golf cart to transport my aging grandparents to the shore for sunset, raking rocks on the beach, or hauling a dock or a boat in or out of the water. And always, the meals.

Our family meals are the centerpiece of Lake Week. My grandmother always preferred to dine “al fresco” and as the family grew, 2 picnic tables on the back lawn became 4 became 6 became 8 became 10, all covered in one of Memo’s signature plaid tablecloths and connected to form one giant table so we could eat “together”. Benches line the side of the tables, offering a place for everyone. Each family is assigned a meal for the week so that breakfast, lunch, and dinner are provided every day. And while it is quite an endeavor to plan, purchase, shop, prepare, serve, and clean up a meal for 50-60 relatives, I know we all consider it a labor of love. (The best part is that once your meal is done, for the rest of the week, you simply show up and eat!) We have had remarkable food over the years and there are many traditional meals we come to expect – Jimmy’s macaroni and cheese, Sarah and Brad’s pork BBQ, Rebecca and Leti’s Texas fiesta, Martha’s homemade lasagna, Eric and Vikki’s low-country boil, and, of course, grits. We have even filled two editions of a family cookbook with these recipes.

Family meals provide a communal structure to our reunion. These rituals remind us that we belong to each other and that just being together is cause for celebration. We gather not just to eat, but to remember who we are. We strengthen the bonds of our shared heritage and reaffirm our identity, as individuals and as family. We are a community, but even more striking, we share communion as the love flows between us. It isn’t perfect or even always pretty, but it is real and messy and holy and beautiful. It is the “sacrament of the present moment” as coined by Father Jean Pierre de Caussade.

The meal ritual always begins with the blowing of the horn. In order to gather dozens of people from several houses and the waterfront, some younger child is granted the privilege of calling the family together by making the loudest noise possible on an antique brass herald’s trumpet hanging on the back porch. Hungry children are usually already circling the buffet table like seagulls and the horn is their signal that they may begin to serve themselves. Even the dogs know to come at the sound of the horn! Food is spread over several additional picnic tables on the lower deck, requisite plaid tablecloths in place. Over the next fifteen minutes, each of us will pass through the line and fill our plates, beginning our conversations well before we sit down. When my grandfather was still alive and he and my grandmother were seated and served, Papa would call GRACE, a shout that would be repeated until the whole family stilled long enough to bless ourselves and give thanks to God for all of these gifts. In Papa’s absence, the call for grace still goes out, and I know I am not the only one who adds a prayer for him along with my thanksgiving for the food.

After grace, the commotion promptly resumes until everyone, including the chefs, finds a seat at the table. And then, every time, someone shouts, “Three Cheers for the Cooks!” and we all respond with grand enthusiasm: Hip Hip Hooray! Hip Hip Hooray! Hip Hip Hooray! The great joy of simple pleasures. The meal goes on and on, dinner the longest of all, with dessert passed around at some point. The youngest leave first but tend to stay close, circling around the tables or playing within sight.

one of many Lake Week meals

Until his death two summers ago, I still didn’t leave the table without going to my beloved grandfather and asking to be excused. It felt like benediction, this small moment between us. I could come to his side and ask for attention and he would give it. He would pause and really look at me. I could feel the warmth and safety that came from belonging to him and to this family. He would smile at me or, when I was younger, put his hand on my head. He delighted in me – in all of us – and affirmed that I would always have a seat at his table.

Isn’t this true for all of us? If we are honest, isn’t our deepest longing for communion like this? To belong to something bigger than ourselves but to be deeply known in this belonging? To always have a seat at the table with our name on it?

I can’t help but think of the theme song to Cheers: Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came…

Sometimes you want to go where you are known and seen and loved. Where you find comfort, belonging, intimacy. Home.

I recently was privileged to spend 5 days at a Catholic retreat focused on Healing the Whole Person. During the first day of the program, they did a visual representation of the Holy Trinity using members of the leadership team. This activity was called a “sculpt”. Two priests were chosen to be God the Father and God the Son and a woman was the Holy Spirit. At the instruction of the leader, the three joined together physically to create the idea of the Holy Trinity. God the Father stood and God the Son knelt in front of him, his Father’s hands resting proudly on his shoulders. The Holy Spirit stood behind them both, her arms wide to enfold them in an embrace.

Although I was initially skeptical of this activity and prepared to find it a little hokey, it immediately felt profound to me. While I have long known that the Holy Trinity is an intimate relationship of the love of God, seeing this human version really touched me. The exercise continued with the creation of Adam and Eve. A married couple was chosen and asked to place themselves in the scene to show their relationship with the Holy Trinity. I felt tears burn in my eyes as I watched the couple embrace each other and then step into the embrace of the Holy Trinity, the 5 of them creating a pure communion of love. Adam and Eve tightly bound together and the arms of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit wrapped tightly around them. Safety, belonging. Home. Everything our hearts long for.

The sculpt then went further to demonstrate The Fall. The tears fell from my eyes as Adam and Eve were removed from their communion and separated from each other and from God, exiled to far corners of the stage area. I found myself staring at the empty hole left in the embrace of the Holy Trinity where Adam and Eve no longer were. I heard a word whispered in my heart: Incomplete.

Without Adam and Eve, God's heart was incomplete. God was complete before He created us. There was not a thing missing in the perfect unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But God still CHOSE to create us. We can’t begin to understand the mind of God, but we can know that God didn’t have to create us. He wanted to. And even before He created us, He loved us. The scriptures tell us that God loves us with an everlasting love. And because He chose to create and love us, as soon as we failed him and we were exiled from the garden, He was incomplete. In fact, 1 Peter 3:18 tells us that “Christ died for sins once for all, for the just and for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God.” Oh, the incredible vulnerability and love of God! These fundamental truths flooded my heart. God didn’t NEED me until He created me, but now His heart will always long for mine. I could see it right there in front of me in the painful void left in the heart of God by the absence of his beloved children.

I feel some small measure of this in my own mother’s heart. Before becoming a parent, we can feel contentment and wholeness on our own. But after having children, after having our love and some part of ourselves incarnate in another human being, we are then never truly complete without them. This is JUST like my experience of losing John Paul Raphael. I was happy enough before we conceived him, but after loving and losing him, I will forever be incomplete until we are reunited. My own loss gives me just the tiniest glimmer into the massive love God holds for us, of how desperately he LONGS for us and for our hearts.

Do you know God loves you? If you are like me, then yes, your HEAD may know that God loves you. But at least in my experience, my heart tends to forget over and over and over again. There in front of me at the retreat, I could see in visual form the love God has for me and believe it with my whole person – the comfort, belonging, and intimacy of being loved deeply by God my Father, Jesus my Savior, and the Holy Spirit, the lover of my soul. I was convicted that God would do whatever it took to bring me back into his embrace; that He would even go so far as to send His only son into the world to suffer and die for me. An overwhelming, reckless love. In the lyrics of Cory Asbury, "there's no mountain he won't climb up, shadow he won't light up coming after me; there's no wall he won't kick down, lie he won't tear down coming after me."

At this point in the retreat, as my heart and soul flooded with love and truth, an image popped into my head. Suddenly, I was at my own end of days when I hope to be invited to the Heavenly Banquet. The scene played out inside me -- a fabulous mansion on the top of a hill at night, a flowered walkway winding up a gorgeously landscaped lawn. Every window of the house is lit up and I can see party guests dancing and mingling. I can hear the sounds of music and laughter and the clink of glasses. I make my way to the front door, the smell of jasmine thick in the air. I stand outside and listen to the sounds of the party, glancing down at the invitation I hold in my hand. I am suddenly shy and scared, insecure. I don’t think I belong here; it feels too big, too daunting. I don’t know anyone. I feel alone. I knock at the door, ring the bell, but no one ever comes. I open the door and cautiously walk into the enormous foyer, wandering amongst the party guests, no one even taking notice of me. The massive dining room is packed, not a seat to be had, the feast well underway. I slip out of the room without eating, overlooked and forgotten.

Have you ever felt this way? Like you believed in God's goodness but somehow it just wasn't for you? For a very long time, this vision was how I pictured God’s love for me. Sure, I got His invitation, but do I really belong?

I have had a breakthrough in encountering this reckless love of God for me. Through years of healing prayer, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the mission of one small baby showing me how to LET MYSELF BE LOVED, I now have a radically different understanding of how God loves me and longs for me. I don't want to minimize the beautiful, brutal nature of this kind of healing journey, the blood, sweat and tears, but it is completely and totally worth it.

The Lord plants His truth deep in my heart. Now in my vision, I make the same journey up the path to the heavenly celebration in the sweet-smelling air. I hear the party and the joy and the laughter, but this time as I approach the front door, it swings open and my Lord is there to call my name and greet me, love and laughter in his eyes, his arms outstretched to enfold me in his embrace. The foyer is filled with the family that has gone before me, my Papa and my paternal grandparents, my cousin Mark with an impish grin and of course, one beautiful small boy who runs and leaps into my arms. We laugh and cry and hug our way into the endless banquet hall where dinner has not yet been served.

I see it there, where it has always been – my name on a place card. My seat at the table.

This is truth. This is our heritage and our legacy and our purpose. We are surrounded by love, belong to this love, were created in this love and all of Heaven prays for us to return to this love. The horn will blow for dinner when we arrive. Our Father will look deeply into our eyes and bless us. Our family will shout “Hip Hip Hooray” simply because we have come home.

If this is not your experience or if you have trouble believing in this love, fight for it.

Or even better, SURRENDER to it.

The Lord longs for you, chooses you, and has a place at the table with your name on it.

Let yourself be loved.

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